A conversation with the Soft Pack
The snow was falling heavily as I made my way to the welcome warmth of the cosy Soup Kitchen in Manchester's Northern Quarter to have a chat with guitarist Matty McLoughlin, drummer Brian Hill (joined by occasional saxophonist Aaron Hester) of the super cool Californian outfit the Soft Pack before their headline gig later that night. Originally formed in San Diego, the guys moved themselves to the vibrant musical haven of Los Angeles and were the victims of controversy in their early days due to originally naming themselves the Muslims. The band found the negative criticism a drag, and rebranded themselves the Soft Pack as a result of "ignorant and racist comments".
They released their second album last year, the aptly titled Strapped, a brilliant LP that took the band in a new direction, veering away from their energetic punk sound into a more textured, adventurous journey through R&B, jazz and pop. The album recieved pretty encouraging reviews, but the band definitely deserved more praise for their unexpected new sound.
The band cite their main influences to be their eclectic music tastes but also have a huge love for comedy, particularly American legends such as Steve Martin and Rodney Dangerfield. An episode of Ameoba's popular "What's in My Bag?" series revealed the band's love of Sly & The Family Stone, R.E.M., The Beastie Boys, Pavement and many other seminal American groups, which may not be entirely evident in their earlier material, but certainly comes through more clearly in Strapped.
After checking in with the tour manager I was greeted by Matty and Brian (two uber-friendly guys), taken into their backstage hang-out area and told to help myself to the Grolsch lager and Reese's peanut butter cups which were sprawled across a table. So straight away I felt right at home, away from the bitter cold and ready to get right into it...
So, how did you guys meet back in the day?
Matty: Three of us went to high school together. Dave (Lantzman, bass) and Matt (Lamkin, guitar/vocals) have been friends for a while. I'm a grade older than Matt, and I became friends him during my Freshman year at college. We were both kinda getting into indie/rock music and hanging around in clubs with guys that were into the same stuff. Brian played in a band with our friends and so we all just came together through hanging out.
Brian: One of my friends was a roommate of Matt's, so through him I met Matty.
Matty: Actually the first time we met, Brian was drunk and hitting on me, rubbing my leg. I'm not even fucking around. I was in the van going to his old band's show and he was like: "Oh, you're Irish?"
Brian: Just drunk enough to like stroke his leg.
How would you best describe your writing and recording process, with Strapped in mind?
Brian: Some of the songs were just rough ideas. We were recording in Matty's garage, on this computer. We put the computer in the middle of the room and just basically recorded our practice.
Matty: We wanted to write as much as possible and just not get hung up, ya know? So it was like, right, cool riff, now on to the next idea. On this record we just wanted to try and record everything and then just sift through. Sometimes me, Brian and David would go and jam and practice, and then Matt will go off. We're always working on stuff individually, and we just email everything into the band email and go from there.
Brian: It used to be a case of bringing our own things to the practice room, but since we all live in different cities I think that's something that's gonna be hard to do.
Matty: I moved to New York and Matt moved to Mexico recently. David and Brian are still in L.A. Everyone kinda records on their own, cos everyone can play multiple instruments. Mainly using stuff like Logic. For Strapped there were about 80 ideas. It got down to 30 songs and then we recorded 18.
Brian: Some of them just weren't that good.
Matty: We were recording right next to that band Beachwood Sparks, they're fucking awesome, they're like the hippest dudes I've ever met in my entire life. So cool.
'Bobby Brown' is one your most unique songs, in contrast to your earlier work. How did that number come about and what inspired you to make such a dramatic shift in sound?
Brian: 'Bobby Brown' started really early, straight after we came off tour. We just wanted to do something different. Dave had a guitar part he'd been working on, he'd been listening to a lot of funk and soul. He got halfway through it and kinda got insecure and laughed but we all thought it was rad so we switched instruments. I played bass, Matty played keyboards, Matt played drums, and then it all organically came together.
Matty: Brian and Dave are really good musicians and me and Matt have gotten better, because when we started we were pretty limited. But we've been doing this for quite a while now.
I take it Matt handles all the words?
Brian: Yeah, Matt takes care of all the lyrics. To be honest I don't feel that confident that I could write anything. I think because he's singing it, and he has to sing it ya know, I don't wanna write something stupid and then be all offended if he hated it, like "fuck that song."
Matty: I thought about writing lyrics because I can write music, and I feel like you can't really call yourself a songwriter unless you can write both. But then I thought, well I don't have the desire to talk about my day or anything, and I can't sing and then I also don't wanna seem like I'm shying away from something. So I just realised, I don't wanna write lyrics. It's terrifying. Like a guitar is a guitar. I think Matt writes great lyrics, since the beginning I've realised that you can't play behind a bonehead. Shitty lyrics fuck a band. Anything you do is fucked by a moron up there. So I just feel like we're lucky that we have a lot of faith in Matt to write lyrics that document the kind of stuff he's going through and that we're going through. Another thing that used to happen, that doesn't happen anymore, was say, me and Dave asking each other: "Is this song about me? Oh, oh so it's not about me? Ah well that's a good one, let's use that!"
Brian: Yeah that's true, we'd be like: "Am I really a parasite?" But that doesn't happen anymore, thankfully.
What inspired the title Strapped?
Brian: That was Dave. Coming up with band names, or album names, or maybe even song names is so hard, it's like coming up with names for a kid.
Matty: In fact coming up with band names or album names is probably harder, because the kid ain't gonna live forever. Just call it something like Cecil.
Does it mean Strapped as in, "strapped for cash"?
Brian: Yeah that's part of it. We liked all the various meanings. The Soft Pack itself was a reference to a flacid dildo. So Strapped, strap-on, etc could all fit together. We were all pretty broke too.
Matty: Fake penises, Jesus. If you take two years to make a record, you have no money left, especially if you've paid for that record yourself.
One of the best aspects of the album in my opinion is the addition of horns and saxophone: it suits your sound so well. What inspired that? Any particular bands or albums? Fun House by the Stooges say, or the Stones' Exile on Main St.?
Matty: Yeah absolutely. But aside from those albums I don't think we were going for a specific band thing. It was more a case of, "sax would be cool." And we really wanted to vary our sound. We just got Aaron to play, we don't even really rehearse or anything, we just got him in to play. We didn't particularly have any bands in mind, we just asked ourselves how we could make this next record more sonically different. An example of how this came about would be the 'Second Look'.
Aaron: We were playing at SF State and before the show, we were just hanging out and then they said "hey let's go record this demo and maybe you can put something on it". So we drove out to this place called Land's End which is right on the ocean, right where it turns into the bay. We were sat in the back of our van with a computer, and Matt just held the microphone into my sax and I just improvised, tried to come things. It took us like 20 minutes or so.
Have you got any particularly memorable tour moments to share? Or favourite places you've played at?
Brian: Berlin was cool. Last time we played, it was at this huge art compound. There was this fire-breathing dragon made of iron in the bar. I remember bumming people out whilst soundchecking, there were people on dates and eating dinner. I was hitting the snare but I didn't know sorry in German.
Matty: We played the Breeders' All Tomorrows Parties at Butlins in Minehead, they asked us because we'd played some West Coast dates with them. That was a particularly cool experience. They're definitely in my top five favourite bands.
Brian: Also, we did a tour with Franz Ferdinand a few years ago which was awesome.
Matty: We played Glastonbury, but that was one of the worst times I'd ever had cos like, I didn't go to sleep. Ya know when you're like, completely shook? It's not good, not something that should be taken lightly. Asides from that though, the gig was great!
Strapped is out now, and you can visit the band by heading here.